Democracy in danger in Nigeria as the President Muhammadu Buhari government increasingly takes on attributes of despotism
By Ayorinde Oluokun
Nigerians rolled out the drums on 29, May this year to celebrate the two decades’ milestone in the country’s practice of civil rule. The country has witnessed a peaceful transition of power five times – with a successful transition of government at the federal level from the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP to the opposition All Progressives Congress, APC in 2015. This is considered a watershed in the journey for consolidation of civil rule in the country. But barely five months after that celebration, civil society activists and the media are now confronted with the challenge of returning to the trenches to ensure that the celebrated civil rule is not substituted with despotism.
In a press statement issued ahead of the 2019 December Human Rights Day, a cross-section of Nigerian civil society groups had raised alarm about emerging developments that now constitute dangers to civil rule and liberty under the administration of President Muhammad Buhari. The civil society groups in a statement signed by Osai Ojigho, Amnesty International (Nigeria), Idayat Hassan, Centre for Democracy & Development (CDD), Auwal Musa, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), ‘Yemi Adamolekun, Enough is Enough Nigeria (EiE Nigeria), Lanre Suraj, HEDA & People’s Alternative Front, Kola Ogundare, Socio-Economic Right And Accountability Project (SERAP), Jaye Gaskia, Take Back Nigeria (TBN) and Biola Akiode-Afolabi, Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC) & Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) lamented the increasing conscription of civic space, impunity and violation of rule of law by governmental actors. These, the groups noted, have manifested in a crackdown on the freedom of the press; proposed bills to curb dissent and failure to obey court orders.
Abduction of Sowore
Unarguably, the biggest manifestation of the increasing lawlessness was what lawyers have described as the desecration of the courtroom of Federal High Court in Abuja by operatives of the Department of State Services, DSS in the bid to re-arrest activist and publisher of SaharaReporters, Omoyele Sowore recently. The activist who ran against President Buhari for the Nigerian presidency in the 2019 general election was arrested by the DSS in the early morning of 3 August 2019 in Lagos in the midst of planning for nationwide protests tagged #RevolutionNow.
The protest, scheduled for August 5 being planned with other human rights groups was designed to protest worsening socio-economic situations in the country, corruption and poor governance. “Simple elections can no longer save Nigeria or improve Nigeria’s democracy. We deserve or must have a revolution in this country,” Sowore said in an interview a few days before he was taken into custody.
Sowore was arrested in a manner which is now becoming the preferred mode of taking suspects into detention by the DSS: secret abduction. According to an eyewitness, heavily armed operatives of the DSS had stormed the residence of the activist, who is also the chairman of African Action Congress, between 1:15 am and 1:25 am, banging on the door the day he was arrested: “At around past 1 a.m.,(Saturday morning) the armed men knocked on the door. I noticed immediately that these knocks were strange. And I didn’t open. I looked and I saw men armed to the teeth. They started forcing their way in like armed robbers. But I knew they were DSS men, knowing fully well the attention #RevolutionNow has garnered. Sowore wanted to open at first but I immediately told him who they are. But there were speculations on the whereabouts of Sowore or indeed if he was arrested by a security agency or kidnapped by criminals as the DSS failed to confirm if their operatives were indeed behind the arrest of the activist until well over 24 hours later.
Serial Violations of Release Order
Spokesperson of the DSS, Peter Afunanya, eventually confirmed that Sowore was in the custody of the Service because of the next Sunday afternoon. The DSS official told journalists that the AAC presidential candidate was arrested because he called for a revolution in Nigeria. He added that the DSS was “aware of information that Sowore had been in touch with foreign actors to destabilise Nigeria.”
After much protest by Femi Falana, his lawyer, the DSS eventually arraigned Sowore in court on charges of treason, money laundering and cyberstalking the President. He was docked alongside a student activist, Omowale Bakare, who was arrested with him. Both men pleaded not guilty to the charges. They were granted bail, but were not released by the DSS despite meeting the onerous bail conditions.
The intelligence agency continued to give one ridiculous order or the other for not allowing Sowore and his co-detainee to go. However, following serious complaints by Sowore’s lawyers, Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu had on Thursday, December 5, frowned on the continued detention of the defendants despite their release on bail. Consequently, she ordered the DSS to release Sowore and Bakare within 24 hours and to report to the court the following day to confirm that her orders had been complied with.
The DSS complied with the order of the court and released the defendants to their lawyers later that day. The Judge had commended the DSS for complying with her order when the court resumed sitting for the continuation of trial of Sowore the next day. The court then adjourned the suit.
But it emerged that commendation came too soon as she was later forced to hurriedly vacate the court following commotion over attempts to re-arrest Sowore by the DSS right in the courtroom. Explaining what happened, Falana said DSS operatives had stormed the court and threatened to shoot as they struggled with supporters of the former presidential candidate in the courtroom in the bid to re-arrest him. He noted that the court was thus forced to rise prematurely, an aberration which he noted, had never taken place in Nigeria’s history, even under a full-blown military rule. “Even under full military dictatorship, you will be allowed to drive out of the court premises and then be arrested on the street but not in the web of the court, it has never happened before. The judge had to withdraw because they were threatening to shoot, and asked lawyers to take a date for their cases,” said Falana.
The Senior Advocate of Nigeria later offered to drive Sowore to the Abuja national headquarters of DSS where the activist was eventually detained again after enjoying less than 24 hours freedom.
Still and video images of the struggle by the DSS to arrest the presidential candidate of AAC inside the courtroom, as well as the commotion at the front of the Federal High Court premises before the intelligence agency yielded to Falana’s request that he should be allowed to drive him to their office, were circulated real-time on social and traditional media. This led to the swift condemnation of the action of the intelligence agency as no one was left in doubt of the perfidy.
Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, in a statement titled, “Lessons from the African Wild Dog (LycaeonPictus),” noted that disobedience of court order by the government can lead to a situation in which there is general civil disobedience in the society. “It is so obvious – state disobedience leads eventually to civil disobedience, piecemeal or through a collective withdrawal of recognition of other structures of authority. That way leads to chaos but – who set it in motion? As is often the case, the state, unquestionably. Such a state bears full responsibility for the ensuing social condition known as anomie.”
Former vice president and the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the 2019 general elections, Atiku Abubakar described the attempt to re-arrest Sowore inside the courtroom as a rape of the country’s democracy in a statement he personally signed. He lamented that a judge was forced to flee the court as a result of the DSS’ action. “Never in the history of Nigerian democracy has a judge been treated in such a disdainful and brazen attack on not just her person and office, but on the entire judiciary. This is unacceptable. It is a rape of the sanctity of the court. Nigeria is not a dictatorship. We are a democracy, no matter how inconvenient this fact is to the powers that have forced themselves on us,” Atiku who called for an immediate inquiry to be set up to identify those responsible for the maltreatment meted out to Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu, the desecration of her court, and the Nigerian judiciary said.
On its part, the PDP said the invasion of the courtroom by DSS further confirmed that Nigeria, under the Buhari Presidency, was finally sliding into a frightening dictatorship in a statement by the National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan. “The invasion is a forceful suspension of our constitutional order and a further battering of the judiciary, which points to an emerging lawlessness that can only find space in a military regime,” the party added while calling on well-meaning Nigerians and the international community to call the Buhari Presidency to order before its actions derail the nation and trigger a breakdown of law and order in the land.
Release Sowore, Others
Apart from the criticisms, there have been calls for the release of Sowore from inside and outside the country. “I am disheartened by reports that Omoyele Sowore—activist, journalist, American citizen—was re-arrested by Nigeria’s government. President Buhari should heed the previous court rulings, and international sentiment, and immediately free OmoyeleSowore now,” Chuck Schumer, a US senator said while asking the Nigerian government to respect court rulings.
Also, Bob Menendez, a member of the United States Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee wrote the Nigerian ambassador in the U.S., Sylvanus Nsofor, over the continued detention of the political activist. He promised that the US will intervene in the detention of the activist. A member of the United States House of Representatives, Karen Bass, also said the detention of Sowore violates a “fragment of his fundamental human right”.
“It is outrageous that Nigeria continues to imprison a journalist and Presidential candidate after a court has ordered his release. Trial Watch will continue to monitor Mr Sowore’s trial and calls on the authorities to implement the court’s order as soon as possible,” Amal Clooney, co-president of the Clooney Foundation for Justice said while condemning the arrest and continued detention of the Saharareporters.
Hostages of Buhari’s Government
But it is not only the Presidency that is holding despite court orders for their release. Former National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki (retd.) has been in the custody of the intelligence agency since December 2015. He is being tried on charges of diversion of funds meant for procurement of weapons for the Nigerian military, illegal possession of weapons among others. While there has not been much headway in the prosecution of the charges, the DSS has refused to release the Sokoto Prince.
This was in spite of the fact that at various times, the Federal High court, the Federal Capital Territory High Court, the Court of Appeal and the ECOWAS Court of Justice had admitted him to bail pending trial. Indeed, upon meeting the conditions of the first bail he was granted in December 2015, Dasuki was released by the Kuje prison authorities. But he was re-arrested at the gate of the prison and has been in detention since then.
Also, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky has been in custody of the DSS since 2015. He was arrested after members of his sect clashed with troops in the convoy of Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai in Zaria, Kaduna State. IMN said over 300 of its members were killed in the clash and reprisal attacks by the troops. The federal government had accused the group of not recognizing the Nigerian constitution and authority and killing of a soldier in the December 2015 incident.
Protests by members of IMN over the continued detention of their leader have led to deaths and injuries in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja and other parts of the country. The DSS has initially refused to arraign the Shiites’ leader in court and when they were forced to do so due to public outcry have failed to respect the bail granted El-Zakzaky by a Kaduna High Court.
While reacting to outcries about disobedience to court orders and illegal detention of Dasuki and El-Zakzaky, the DSS, in a statement last month by its spokesperson, Peter Afunaya said many of those who are in its custody opted to remain there on their own volition, including El-Zakzaky who “opted to be returned to the custody of the Service even as the Court had granted him leave to seek medical care in India,” while adding that “For its compliance with democratic norms, the Service owes the Nigerian public a duty to explain some of its activities. This is more so that these are oftentimes grossly misunderstood or misrepresented.”
But Falana, in reply, had described the statement as a justification of the brazen abuse of power. According to him, the DSS should have apologized to Nigerians for exposing the country to underserved ridicule instead of asking people to that believe Sowore and Bakare, Mr and Mrs Elzakzaky and Col. Sambo Dasuki (rtd) “rather chose to be looked after by the DSS.”
He noted that the Federal Government has continued to justify the detention of Col Dasuki and the Elzakzakys by saying that the local and regional courts had failed to take cognisance of the fact that “national security takes precedence over the rule of law.”
“In fact, for not realising that Sowore ought not to have been admitted to bail the SSS was reported to have threatened to report Justice Taiwo Taiwo of the federal high court to the National Judicial Council,” the human rights lawyer claimed, while drawing attention of Bichi Mogaji, the DG of SSS to Section 287 of the Constitution, stating that a duty has been imposed on all authorities and persons to comply with the decisions of all competent courts in Nigeria. The Senior Advocate of Nigeria, therefore, asked the SSS to urgently comply with the orders of the municipal and regional courts for the release of all detainees and criminal suspects languishing in unlawful custody without any further delay.
Aside Sowore, Dasuki and Zakzaky, Jones Abiri, a journalist based in Port Harcourt was arrested and kept behind bars for about two years and the DSS only agreed that he was in their custody after pressure from local and international human rights groups. Indeed, a recent report by The Punch newspapers detailed that there are many of such detainees secretly abducted now languishing in DSS custody for over two years without the knowledge of their family members.
Quoting documents obtained from human rights groups, the newspaper identified some of those who have been in detention of DSS for many years to include Lucky Andrew who was arrested in Abuja on November 11, 2016, and detained for 13 months later; Gabriel Ogbu who was arrested in Delta State on November 9, 2016, and released 16 months later. Others include Ibrahim Shadrake arrested in Borno State August 28, 2015, who was released after two years in custody. There was also the case of Tonye Leventis, who was arrested in Bonny Island, Rivers State on February 3, 2017, and released after 13 months; Joshua Golubos arrested in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State on December 15, 2016, and released after 15 months; and Cobam Daniel, arrested on September 17, 2017, and released after 15 months.
The newspaper noted that in most cases, DSS refused to set the detainees free despite court orders mandating their release. Falana had also in a letter to the DSS last year, identified that at least 294 persons were being detained by the intelligence agency. The human rights lawyer further drew the attention of Mr.Yususf Bichi Mogaji, the Director-General of the State Security Service to Section 287 of the Constitution, stating that a duty has been imposed on all authorities and persons to comply with the decisions of all competent courts in Nigeria.
Amnesty International has already declared Sowore, Bakare prisoners of conscience over what it described as ‘their ongoing arbitrary detention and unfair trials solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression.’ Also declared a prisoner of conscience by the human rights body was Agba Jalingo who was abducted in Lagos and taken to Calabar, in Cross River state over series of articles critical of Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State. Jalingo is also being tried on charges of treason and terrorism.
He is one of the activists arrested across Nigeria under the order of state governments and leading government officials over comments made online or in the traditional media in recent times. “The Nigerian authorities at both federal and state levels have repeatedly targeted human rights defenders, activists and journalists including by stifling dissenting voices and passing repressive legislation to restrict the civic space,” AI noted in a statement issued on 20 November. “We consider Sowore, Jalingo and Bakare to be prisoners of conscience detained solely for exercising their human rights. The Nigerian authorities must drop all charges against them and release them immediately and unconditionally” the organisation added.
The Security Bogey
But the fact is that there is no evidence that the Federal Government is ready to release the detainees soon, even in spite of the court order for their release in some cases. Already, the presidency has indicated that it is not bothered by the criticisms and calls for release of Sowore and other detainees from local and foreign rights activists. Spokesperson for President Buhari, Femi Adesina said on a television programme last week that the calls from persons in the EU, UK and the U.S. expressing concerns over the degeneration of respect for rule of law, especially over the detention of Sowore amounted to interference in Nigeria’s affairs.
Even more telling, the presidency has justified the re-arrest of Sowore by the DSS, indicating its support for the action of the intelligence agency. Senior Special Adviser to the President on Media and publicity, Garba Shehu, in a statement said the DSS acted under its powers and in fulfilment of its constitutional responsibilities in the arrest of the former presidential candidate.
He claimed that Sowore had called for a revolution to overthrow the democratically elected government of Nigeria on television, and from a privileged position as the owner of a widely-read digital newspaper run from the United States of America. He added that Sowore had also founded RevolutionNow, to launch, “Days of Rage”, which, according to him was for the purpose of “fomenting mass civil unrest and the elected administration’s overthrow.”
“No government will allow anybody to openly call for destabilization in the country and do nothing,” Garba said. “Nigeria’s democracy was a long time in the making and was achieved after decades of often harsh, military-led overthrows of government: the kind of situation Sowore was advocating. To believe in and desire armed revolution is not normal amongst ‘human rights activists’, as Sowore has been incorrectly described. Again, it is no surprise that he should be a person of interest to the DSS,” said the presidential spokesman. He added that with Nigeria already dealing with an insurgency that has left millions of people displaced and desperate in the northeastern region of our country, the country cannot afford to allow the emergence of another form of insurrection.
“That’s why those who are calling on Buhari to call the DSS to order are getting it wrong. Buhari was well aware of what is going on and he is in support of the DSS. Don’t forget that he once justified the detention of Dasuki,” an activist told this magazine,” Adewale Olusina, an Abuja based civil society activist told this magazine.
He also dismissed the move by the Attorney General of the Federation and the Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami to take over the case of Sowore from the DSS. He noted that Malami was prosecuting the activist before handing the case over to a lawyer employed by the DSS. “Even, Femi Falana has said this and that’s why he is called on the AGF to file a nolleprosequi for the release of Sowore instead of the merry-go-round that he is embarking upon now.”
True to this assertion, Falana had also raised alarm that the DSS, In spite of the directive of the AGF to take over the case the subjected Sowore to a four -hour interrogation on 12 December: “The entire interrogation pertained to Sowore’s alleged links with the proscribed Boko Haram sect, IPOB and IMN which he vehemently denied. At Sowore’s instance a member of the legal defence team, Mr Abubakar Marshal witnessed the marathon interrogation. The plan of the SSS is to charge Sowore with terrorism in line with the unsubstantiated allegations of presidential media aides.”
While further justifying the argument that Sowore may not be released anytime soon, the activist noted that the AGF had in recent interviews cited the judgment delivered by the Supreme Court in the case of Asari Dokubo Vs the Federal Government wherein the court ruled that Dokubo could be denied his freedom based on national security. “And this is also the belief of President Buhari, especially if you go back to his first adventure in power in the early 80s,” he said.
In the interview, Malami justified serial disobedience of court orders by the Buhari government: “I concede that I have a responsibility as AGF to protect individual rights but looking at the provisions of Section 174 of the constitution, I want to state further that the Office of the AGF is meant to protect public interest and where the individual interests conflicts with the public interest of 180 million Nigerians that are interested in having this country integrated, public interest must naturally prevail. I think that position has been stated by the apex court in the case of Asari DokuboVs Federal Republic of Nigeria that when an individual interest conflicts with the public interest, the public interest will naturally prevail.”
It’s the Old Buhari Reviving The Old NSO Again!
Dare Babarinsa, journalist and top columnist in a recent article tagged ‘Be Afraid! Be afraid!’ noted how as a military head of state, Buhari had similarly employed then National Security Organisation which transformed into DSS under the leadership of Ambassador Mohammed Lawal Rafindadi, to put many journalists and politicians behind bars, without any justifiable reasons using as an instrument the notorious Decree 2 and Decree 4.
He noted that like it is happening now, the Buhari military government “had fallen under the spell of those who regarded “security” as the ultimate reason for the existence of the Nigerian state,” to embark on the rash of detentions early in 1984 when he assumed office as the military president.
He noted that despite the fact that all the civilian governors were then in detention, Major-General Babatunde Idiagbon, the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters and Buhari’s deputy had announced at a press conference in Lagos that former governors of Ondo, Ogun and Oyo, Chief Adekunle Ajasin, Chief Olabisi Onabanjo and Chief Bola Ige respectively who were members of the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria, UPNhad confessed to receiving a bribe of N2.1 million and had agreed to refund the money. But the leader of UPN, Chief Obafemi Awolowo had disputed the claim, noting that at the time of Idiagbon’spress conference, none of the governors had been interrogated nor asked to make a statement.
“In retaliation, the regime seized Awolowo’s travelling passport and barred him from leaving the country. Similar measures were meted out to Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigerian first titular President. Such was the reluctance of Buhari and his junta to confront the truth to the extent that it refused to free Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin from detention even after three military tribunals tried, found him not guilty and gave orders that he should be freed. Alhaji Kayode Jakande, the Governor of Lagos, like hundreds, if not thousands of other detainees, was never tried and yet was in detention throughout the months of the Buhari regime,” the columnist recalled.
Yet, he added that Buhari has always shown disdain for rule of law, citing his refusal to honour an invitation to appear before the Justice Chukwudifu Oputa Panel set up by former President Olusegun Obasanjo to review human rights violations that took place under the military regime.
The Columnist noted that under Buhari, “it is becoming increasingly clear that the old SSS is becoming the ultimate transmutation of the renamed Directorate of State Security which is now under the supervision of the National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguno. Its Director-General is Yusuf Magaji Bichi who took over from acting DG Mathew Seiyefa last year… In the way the Republic is going, we need to be afraid for our democracy and the Rule of Law. Our President’s increasing hunger for extra-judicial power ought to fill us with dread and primordial fear.”
In the statement they issued last week, the group of civil society activists had called on Buhari to show accountability as President and Commander-in-Chief and address the nation on his commitment to the rule of law and human rights, in addition to release of all illegally detained persons by the DSS, obey all outstanding court orders, to release Sowore and investigate of the officers involved in the fiasco to re-arrest him at Federal High Court, Abuja.
The group may as well be preparing to carry out its threat of occupation of the offices of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) offices across the country if its demands are not met. No doubt, Nigeria is gradually sliding into anarchy with most of the citizens feeling helpless as government violates one rule of law, the most important underpinning of democracy under the Buhari government.